My critique group consists of folks with a wide range of reading tastes and writing styles. We frequently have minor issues during critiques over what amounts to the literary versus genre debate. One popped up the other day when several lines of one member’s story were deemed “melodramatic” by another member. There were suggestions that the writer should “tone it down.”
This got me thinking on the subject. And thinking on my part often leads to a blog post. Here it is.
First, my general rule on writing literary versus genre fiction is that, if you’re writing literary fiction, “tone it down,” if you’re writing genre fiction, “turn it up.” Of course, literary writers like Cormac McCarthy turn it way the hell up. (Read Blood Meridian.) Ray Bradbury, who recently died but who was accepted as a “literary” writer by the establishment, turned it up, at least in works like The Martian Chronicles and Something Wicked This Way Comes.
A key, though, is that a work has to have coherence. One reason Bradbury’s prose is accepted by the literary establishment is because it was so clearly a total package. His prose was bright, surreal, powerfully dramatic, but it was also consistent throughout. Such prose is a problem only if it is “mixed” in with more restrained language.
Say I wrote for example: “Tom stared out his window at the drizzle that fell steadily from a gray sky. He didn’t like the rain. He’d never liked it. It changed his mood for the worse. It made him feel empty. And when he was empty the depression tended to find him. That depression was like moving into Satan’s apartment in the black bowels of hell, where the only light was the scarlet screaming of blood and sin.”
The last line is way over the top from what came before, and I certainly consider it melodramatic. However, there are several issues to be considered with that line. 1: While it’s over the top to me, not everyone would necessarily agree. 2: Even those who agree that the line is over the top are likely to remember it, and being remembered is generally a good thing. You don’t sell books by writing material that isn’t memorable. 3: In a differently styled story, with a different kind of build up, that line would fit perfectly and wouldn’t be judged as over the top at all, at least not by the folks who read (and buy) that kind of fiction. (Like me.)
Melodrama lies in the eyes of the reader. Many readers prefer what I will call “restrained” prose to unrestrained prose. Others do not, and there is little doubt that restrained prose sells less well than unrestrained. Consider “Fifty Shades of Grey,” a very non-restrained work. You should use the “look inside” feature at Amazon to read a few excerpts from that. And it sold in the millions. No one remembers or talks about “restrained” fiction.
I think what writers have to do with their stories and prose is to seek a consistency across the entire piece. If your language is generally heightened, then more pedestrian phrases will call unfortunate attention to themselves. But if your prose is restrained, then heightened phrases will clearly stand out and likely evoke cries of “melodrama.”
In other words, and seeking to be memorable at the risk of being called melodramatic, I’ll say: Set your prose mower wherever you like, high or low, but then leave it the same for the whole piece.